Different Students in Different Classrooms

Zoe never feels challenged in the classroom; she is constantly bored. Trey is always behind, he feels that the class is far too hard. When you have both Zoe and Trey in a classroom, how do you help them both? Classrooms are filled with students, each of them at a different point, with different skills, and different life contexts. Knowing how to properly teach these groups requires a teacher to know and respond to their student’s needs. In high school mathematics, students all took classes with different teachers who focused on different things. The students have mastered different things, and need to be brought to the same understanding. In order to bring the students to a strong mathematical literacy, we have to be creative and responsive in our approach.

The first step to advocating for students is learning where they are at. In “Writing So That People Can Hear Me”, the authors state: “Instead of assuming what our students knew and needed, we wanted to show them that we were listening to their voices and then using that information to make daily instructional decisions” (Gutzmer & Wilder, 2012, p. 38). I remember many classes where the teacher assumed we knew the subject, and spent no time on the topic. This can often hold a significant portion of the class back. Pre-assessment, along with constant formative assessment is vital to properly constructing a responsive teaching experience.

Once you know where your students are mathematically, you can begin organizing a helpful experience. You should constantly be assessing the students in order to refine your own classroom. Throughout school, I had teachers who made a schedule, and kept to it regardless of what occurred. If we got behind, we would do things like take an entire chapter in a day. This is not helpful to the students. It does not provide them with knowledge or understanding of the material, especially in a highly structured class like math. This often often accelerated version of mathematics leads to frustration and rote memorization rather than the understanding of the basic principles. As Reed wrote in “What goes up must come down:” “They had been exposed to the mathematics, but they hadn’t grasped the big ideas or supported understandings” (2005, p. 251).

Above: Eisenhower Quote

Every student coming into a classroom is starting at a different place. In “Purposeful Instruction: Mixing Up the ‘I’, ‘We’, and ‘You’” the authors discuss Cesar, a student “beaten” by the assignment given. A well done pre-assessment may have caught this problem, and allowed the teacher to better build his instruction (Grant, Lapp, Fisher, Johnson, Frey, p. 46). Pre-assessment is essential to Gradual release of responsibility and guided instruction.

All students are different. They learn differently, have differing skills and abilities, have different backgrounds, and have different roadblocks. When you take thirty different students and put them in the same classroom, you have to learn to recognize and work with all your students. Various methods exist to help all of them. Being transparent with what you are doing, rather than manipulating and tricking them could make your students far more involved. Recognizing that students may be using disengagement as a strategy to avoid coping with their own lack of literary engagement should be watched for and dealt with. (Friend, 2017, p. 124)

Gradual Release of Responsibility

Once you realize where your students are, you can adjust your plans to properly teach them the subject. A plan can be useful, it is best not to be bound to much by it. You can build them from where they are at, and through the use of gradual release of responsibility take them where they need to go. Gradual release of responsibility begins with focused instruction: in which the teacher shows the students how to do something. Guided instruction involves the teacher working through it with the students. Collaborative learning involves the students doing it in groups. The final involves the student doing it for themselves (as shown in the figure above) (Fisher & Frey, 2014).

If you are responsive to your students needs, transparent in your teaching and expectations, and teaching meaningfully, your students will likely end their year more literate in your discipline then they began. Especially in a field like mathematics, where rigor and precision is so necessary, these things are essential. Not every student will use high school mathematics, but the methods of thinking given by being mathematically literate can be used in every walk of life. Zoe and Trey may be in different places, but both can be helped by the proper, responsive teaching of mathematics.


Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Better learning through structured teaching: a framework for the gradual release of responsibility (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Friend, L. (2017). IRE and content area literacies: A critical analysis of classroom discourse. Australian Journal Of Language & Literacy, 40(2), 124–134.

Grant, M., Lapp, D., Fisher, D., Johnson, K., & Frey, N. (2012). Purposeful Instruction MIXING UP THE “I,” “WE,” AND “YOU”. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(1), 45–55.

Gutzmer, C., & Wilder, P. (2012). “Writing So People Can Hear Me”: Responsive Teaching in a Middle School Poetry Unit. Voices from the Middle, 19(3), 37–44.

Reed, C. (2005). What Goes Up Must Come Down. In C. Tomilson & C. Strickland (Authors), Differentiation in Practice Grades 9–12: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum (pp. 250–284). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.